Akbar’s mole and other stories

Aditya Mani Jha and Payel Majumdar Upreti | Updated on October 18, 2019

Long story: A miniature painting of Emperor Babur on the cover of Baburnama, memoirs of Zahir-ud-Din-Muhammad Babur   -  VV KRISHNAN

Indians are known to groan at the word history. However, a budding group of authors is hoping to change that with exciting and historical accounts of murder and love, war and intrigue

Akbar, the great. He was mighty and tolerant, readers of history have known. But was anyone aware that he had a “particularly nice way of speaking” and a beautiful mole on his left nostril?

History, clearly, is not just about battles lost and won.

Take Jahangir and Nurjahan. Picture the emperor driving into a camp on a bullock cart, holding its reins, his empress by his side. “There is such a cheerful lack of restraint in this picture — the emperor of all Hindustan driving a bullock cart, Nurjahan perched merrily by his side — that what can you call it, but love,” writes Parvati Sharma in Jahangir: An Intimate Portrait of a Great Mughal.


Another tale: Parvati Sharma’s Jahangir: An Intimate Portrait of a Great Mughal brings out little-known aspects of the king and his wife Nurjahan


Reading history has never been this engaging. The reference to the mole and the bullock cart are among the hundreds of little details — all authenticated — that make Sharma’s book on Jahangir a compelling read. For generations of Indians weaned on history books as dry as dust, a spate of new books promises enchanting stories — true, yet never told.

And that draws readers to an all-important question: Why is it that people across the world have written historical accounts that are as accessible as they are academic, while Indian books on history — barring a handful — are greatly scholarly but often a big yawn?

William Dalrymple feels it has taken a while for people to latch on to the joys of history   -  K MURALI KUMAR


“It’s a peculiarly Indian situation. Professional historians, however talented they are, do not write for the general reader and their work doesn’t percolate down to the general readers,” points out William Dalrymple, the author of several books on Indian history. “There is never a year when you don’t find a Harvard historian winning a Pulitzer. But you get this cleavage here that is not there anywhere else. So I get asked all the time, I can’t believe you made history so interesting.”

Linked by fate: Dalrymple’s latest book is an overview of how the East India Company established its dominance over the Indian subcontinent




The tide, however, is turning. Many books on history are being eagerly lapped up by the lay reader. Quite a few have been written by non-academics. Authors living outside India have also revived historical narratives.

Audrey Truschke, author of Culture of Encounters (2016) and Aurangzeb: The man and the myth (2017)   -  Special Arrangement


Take, for instance, Audrey Truschke’s well-researched and well-received biography of Aurangzeb. Then, of course, there is Dalrymple’s newly launched book The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, And The Pillage Of An Empire.

A misunderstood king: Truschke’s modern retelling of Aurangzeb’s life busts several myth about him that have percolated as urban legends


Eminently readable history books have flooded the market in the last few years. If Truschke’s Aurangzeb was in part a critique of the way many favour popular half-truths over actual history, Ira Mukhoty wrote about a parallel Mughal empire, as it were: The women, many of whom were not just accomplished but genuinely influential, too. Daughters of the Sun: Empresses, Queens & Begums of the Mughal Empire (2018) works not just because of how remarkable Mukhoty’s subjects are, but also because of the author’s gift for recreating their worlds in exquisite detail: “Though she is now an exile, the circumstances of her second pregnancy are vastly different from her first one. In Persia, though she still travels constantly, it is for the pleasure of visiting charming and legendary sights. She is now preceded by horsemen and drummers and trumpeters. The road ahead is swept and sprinkled with water. Her retinue includes elaborate tents and mobile kitchens.”

Interest in historical fiction and non-fiction has been growing, agrees Ranjana Sengupta, associate publisher, Penguin, though she adds that the genre has always had its share of readers. “What we see now is an intensified interest in history and one which encompasses non-fiction narratives as well.”

There is, she adds, an increasing demand for “accessibly written” biographies of well-known historical personages. And god – or readership — clearly is in the detail.

Take this extract from Rebel Sultans: The Deccans From Shivaji to Khilji, by Manu S Pillai.

Manu S Pillai, author of The Ivory Throne (2015), Rebel Sultans (2018) and The Courtesan, the Mahatma & the Italian Brahmin (2019)   -  The Hindu



“Ibrahim Adil Shah II of Bijapur was a man full of surprises, and not only because he coloured his nails red. As a boy, he once came across a party of Shaivites and was so profoundly influenced by their exchange that it opened a lifelong fascination in him for Hindu traditions. Indeed, though formally a Sunni Muslim, when he died, such were the suspicions around his true loyalties that his epitaph served primarily as a reassurance to all concerned: ‘No, Ibrahim in truth was not a Jew, neither a Christian; but he was a Muslim, and one pure of faith; certainly he was never of the idolators’,” writes Pillai, whose new book The Courtesan, The Mahatma & the Italian Brahmin: Tales From Indian History, was released recently.


The emphasis in the new volumes is not just on good writing but on rigorous research and fact checking. Truschke’s book, for instance, seeks to set the record straight on some widely circulated myths and half-truths about the Mughal emperor — such as the perception that he destroyed more temples than any other ruler in Indian history, or that he enforced a string of laws targeting Hindus (as Truschke writes, the number of temples Aurangzeb destroyed was closer to 12-15, and he, in fact, employed more Hindus than any other Mughal ruler).

Publishers are clearly excited about India’s newfound history boom. Says Teesta Guha Sarkar, commissioning editor at Pan Macmillan India, “The three main ingredients [in a history manuscript] for me are a fresh and forceful historical perspective, impeccable research and a compelling writing style that appeals to both scholarly and lay readers.”

The phrase “popular history” — once largely used for works that merely catered to the public — is losing its sting. “The term popular history makes it sound like these books are somehow lacking in academic credibility,” Dalrymple says. “I have put in resources in my books which few can manage in terms of time and travel, looking up libraries from Pasadena to Patna, and these books have won big literary prizes. I don’t want to give the impression that any of these books is less scholarly or less rigorously researched.”


Publishers love to assert that books that have an eye on ‘the larger picture’ have a greater chance at mainstream success. So say if there is a book on the mutiny of 1857 in the works, the author might be well-advised to locate the narrative within the context of the larger social and political realities in the Indian subcontinent of the time — and cast as wide a net as possible, covering different strands of the revolts from different parts of the country.

But that may not be the only formula that works. Take, for instance, Kim Wagner’s The Skull of Alum Bheg, released in 2017 by Penguin Random House India. It sticks doggedly to one subject — the titular Alum Bheg, a soldier in the British East India Company, whose long-lost skull was discovered in a Kent pub in 1963. Wagner’s book starts with the moment of discovery of the skull and keeps pulling at that string until the readers are left with a fascinating account of the lived realities of British India in 1857, through the eyes of Bheg, who was one of the leaders of the mutiny.

Strategies such as Wagner’s are distinctly novelistic. And this becomes an even stronger play when it’s executed by a talented and experienced writer of fiction — such as Sharma, author of Juggernaut’s Jahangir (2018) and The Story of Babur (2015, Puffin/Goodearth). For her book on Babur, a work that targets children, Sharma drew mostly from the Baburnama to paint a compelling portrait of its subject — the boy-king who was orphaned at a tender age, grew up to conquer many lands, and along the way, understood the meaning of love and loss.

Yet, there is no airbrushing either, for the writer takes into account all that happened to Babur, and the bloodshed that he brought about.

“If I had a literary role model in mind while writing Babur it wasn’t a writer of history, it was Roald Dahl. First, because he’s by far my favourite writer from my childhood; and second because he writes about disturbing subjects with such unsentimental humour, so matter-of-factly,” Sharma tells BLink.


Historiography, or the study of how histories are written, has arguably never been more important. Throughout the recorded past, dominant groups have effaced the stories of those they’ve colonised or oppressed.

Tony Joseph, author of Early Indians: The Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Came   -  H VIBHU


Tony Joseph, author of Early Indians: The Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Come From, reiterates the importance of knowing the story behind how certain histories are written. “History as it was taught in the ’70s and early ’80s, when I was a student, was mostly about ‘what actually happened between time A and time B’. It was a litany of facts, dates and events, without too much of an attempt to tell the story of why those facts and those events in particular happened or in other words what were the driving forces. Also, history we were taught was mostly focused on those who had left behind a textual record, which meant history was most often told from the perspective of those who were in power one way or another and facts and events of importance to others were ignored.”

In the introduction to The Courtesan, The Mahatma & the Italian Brahmin Pillai writes, “There is much in our past to enrich us, and a great deal that can explain who we are and what choices must be made as we confront grave crossroads in our own times. But, in the end, each reader must draw her own conclusions — this book seeks only to light the way, and to reiterate the importance of that age-old principle: context.”

A great example of this happens early on in The Courtesan, in a chapter called A Muslim Deity in a Hindu temple, where Pillai narrates the story of how Shivaji ‘discovered’ his royal Kshatriya lineage after he figured out this would help him strategically (“ addition to actual power, what the Maratha hero urgently needed was legitimacy”).

Pillai’s explanation for these ‘retconning’ episodes (a ‘retcon’ or ‘retroactive continuity’ is when writers change the origin story of a character in order to suit their future adventures) is simple and elegant. According to him, “(…) India has often negotiated disruptive change through such inventions of tradition.” Elites from different communities would often join forces to perpetrate certain exaggerations or even fibs — for the sake of carrying on business as usual, without rebellions or righteous crusades to deal with.


Many, however, stress that such historical narratives cannot be compared with academic writing. “The value of a professional historian is in pushing the frontiers of the discipline. I don’t know if (other) writers go through the very rigorous peer review process, that we academicians have to submit to before publishing any of our work, say for a journal or a book,” says Rajat Datta, a professor of history at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. “There are rigorous phases of being read and the work being commented upon — academic vetting to keep dangerous errors at bay, since these are works that once peer reviewed represent the latest history.”

There are concerns over facts being misrepresented in books of popular history. “Without the peer review process, second-hand sources might be employed leading to inaccuracies, sources which eliminates the need to read original texts in the different languages that they were written in,” Datta adds. “Without, say, a personal command over Persian and Arabic text, it is very difficult to get a hold of what light the original manuscript throws on the subject at hand in Mughal history, something which may have been completely overlooked or even misunderstood in a second-hand source. Historians have to be very careful about their sources while writing history, otherwise it really is not worth it.”

These are some of the reasons, Datta points out, why not all academic history books have wider readerships. “There are many academicians who are read widely, people such as Romila Thapar, Eric Hobsbawm and Nirad C Chaudhuri come to mind. However, to be a full-time academic comes with several other responsibilities that writers are free of. These involve mentoring another generation of historians, teaching and guiding research. Academic writing itself requires the work to be hugely annotated accounts, which may not appeal to the lay reader looking for an easy read,” he says.

The other camp points out that a balance between accessible writing and academic rigour are the trademarks of some of the best writers in the West. “Once you’ve got a body of research, you can choose to write it in academic prose for half a dozen of your colleagues, or you can choose to write it in literary prose the way (British historian) Edward Gibbon did,” Dalrymple says.

William Dalrymple on his new book, and the growing interest in history

  • Tell us about your book.

The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, And The Pillage Of An Empire is my fourth book on the Company. The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857, White Mughals and Return of a King: The Battle of Afghanistan are micro-histories; this one is a prequel. There’s a lot of material that I gathered and didn’t use. I don’t think I’ll write another book on the Company anymore. (Laughs.)

  • Given the times we are in right now, is a story on corporate greed and access an allegory?

We’ve had 4G. People like Raghuram Rajan have been warning us about crony capitalism, and I just came back from the US where they’re talking about crony corporations in every campaign speech. All this is pure coincidence.

  • What do you feel about people not from an academic background writing books on history?

There is a gap here between writers in history and academic writers and hence it has taken a while for people to latch on to the joys of history. You now have many groups that are taking tours around Delhi. But that’s happened in the last five years. When my White Mughals came out no one was taking any historical tours. Now there are powerful heritage lobbies, like the one in Hyderabad that prevented Irrum Manzil from being pulled down with an order from the High Court. The historical consciousness is now bubbling up. People begin to get excited by our past. That said, we badly need a listing system for our heritage, every year another jaali disappears from the Zafar Mahal. The monuments are maintained on a shoestring budget. I think gradually, hopefully, this will change.

Aditya Mani Jha and Payel Majumdar Upreti

Published on October 18, 2019

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